A contractor who has worked for the State and Justice Departments has been arrested and charged with spying for Ethiopia, according to several U.S. officials with knowledge of the situation.
The man, Abraham T. Lemma, 50, of Silver Spring, Md., faces two counts under the Espionage Act and was taken into custody last month. Not much was known about the case, which remains sealed in Federal District Court in Washington and could be made public as early as this week. Efforts to reach Mr. Lemma’s lawyer and family were unsuccessful.
Mr. Lemma’s LinkedIn profile describes him as a part-time systems analyst for the State Department who has worked at the department’s Diplomatic Security Service since 2019.
Mr. Lemma’s connection to Ethiopia, a country that is a significant recipient of aid from the United States, is unusual.
Many of the recent espionage cases the Justice Department has pursued involve China’s multifaceted efforts to infiltrate American companies and government agencies, like by stealing trade secrets and economic intelligence, or by recruiting people in the United States to serve as spies or to intimidate dissidents. Last month, two members of the U.S. Navy were charged with spying for China, accused of filching military secrets and other sensitive information.
The United States and Ethiopia have a longstanding partnership, and it remains unclear what sensitive information Mr. Lemma, a graduate of the University of Baltimore, had obtained or how long he had been helping that country.
But it is not uncommon for friendly powers to seek information inside the United States to provide their leaders with up-to-the-minute political, economic or military information, according to current and former U.S. officials.
It also works the other way around. The trove of sensitive government documents that Jack Teixeira, a Massachusetts Air National Guardsman, is accused of posting to an online gaming platform illustrated the broad reach of U.S. spy agencies, including into the capitals of friendly countries such as Egypt, South Korea, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates.
They included C.I.A. briefs describing private conversations at senior levels of government in those countries, some attributed to “signals intelligence,” or electronic eavesdropping.
Even as the leak showed how far the United States’ reach was, the diplomatic reaction to the disclosure was muted, in part because foreign governments have come to regard such activity as routine in the decade since Edward Snowden released internal government communications revealing that a sophisticated network of global surveillance was scooping up emails and phone calls from friends and foes alike.
Ethiopia, situated on the geopolitically critical Horn of Africa, is one of the poorest countries in the world, facing drought, famine, political unrest and bloody conflict with neighboring Eritrea.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for trying to restart peace negotiations with Eritrea. But in 2020, fighting broke out between Ethiopia’s military and a paramilitary group in the country’s northern Tigray region, killing tens of thousands.
Since 2020, the United States has given the country more than $3 billion in aid to assist in its recovery from civil war and drought, according to the State Department.
This year, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visited Ethiopia as part of an effort to bolster ties with the United States amid the rising influence of Russia and China.